President Obama’s signing of the $787 billion stimulus bill on Tuesday brings to a close his administration’s first major political battle. While Congress argued over the bill, far less contentious conversations took place in living rooms around the country, from Connecticut to California. These “stimulus house parties” followed a model that the Obama campaign developed to solicit volunteers and donations. Their structure suggests that the campaign will never end—and, unfortunately, that serious public engagement with important national issues will rarely occur.
Following Obama’s election victory, his team created a transition website, Change.gov, for maintaining connections with supporters and organizing them locally to support the president-elect’s policies. Health-care reform became the first “party” issue. Much as the campaign had, the website provided information about health care (solely from the Obama perspective), along with networking capabilities to gather people together for what the incoming administration called “Health Care Community Discussions.” Over 10,000 of these gatherings took place across America.
Particularly telling were the guides that Change.gov provided for hosts and guests. Hosts, explained the six-page Host and Moderator Guide, should invite “friends, family, colleagues and neighbors,” and moderators “should not strongly advocate for specific health policy positions.” Further, “everyone should conduct the meeting like President-elect Obama would: respecting everyone, listening to everyone’s opinion, and engaging in spirited discussion without being disagreeable.” The five-page Participant Guide, meanwhile, devoted one page to over a dozen bullet points outlining the dire condition of the current health-care system, and followed it with a second page highlighting Obama’s solutions in 13 bullet points. This two-page treatment of national health policy was followed by three pages of mostly leading questions. At the conclusion of each meeting, questionnaires were collected, a consensus Group Submission was agreed upon, and the submission transmitted to the president-elect. What happened to it next is anyone’s guess.
After Obama’s inauguration, his civic-involvement effort split into two parts: one based at the White House (the Office of Public Liaison) and the other at DNC headquarters. It’s this second body that has launched yet another website, BarackObama.com, and revived the gatherings in the form of stimulus house parties. The Christian Science Monitor’s Alexandra Marx described one in Chester, Connecticut as “part social reunion, part political event.” Noting that most, if not all, of the participants had voted for Obama, one attendee appeared to express the thoughts of many: “When the battle cry is called, I will respond. I know we’re trying to get the stimulus package passed, and I’ve talked it up to people. . . . But if it doesn’t pass, I’ll do more.” Over 3,300 stimulus-related get-togethers have taken place.
Adopting the approach of Change.gov, BarackObama.com offered one-page synopses of the various components of the stimulus package. At one stimulus party in Bowie, Maryland, 35 people gathered to dissect the voluminous bill after the Senate had passed it. As Sean Quinn describes the guests on the blog FiveThirtyEight.com, “Many knew each other, most were local and had volunteered out of the Largo, MD field office during the campaign.” Once the group broke up into subgroups to examine different aspects of the package, “the task was focusing on the items stripped by the Senate in Friday evening’s deal, discussing which items most deserved inclusion in the ultimate bill, and presenting their report to the at-large group.” If you showed up hoping to talk about cutting more line items from the Senate plan, you came to the wrong place.
As someone who works in the civic-engagement field in California and has observed citizen-centered conversations on health-care policy and budgets, I see several glaring problems with the Obama approach. First, it involves a significant self-selection bias. Using an already supportive network of “friends, family, colleagues and neighbors” may be a great way to sell Tupperware or Amway products, but it is a lousy way to convene a policy discussion purporting to include a variety of opinions. Second, the information provided to both moderators and participants is scant and biased. Missing from the discussion materials is any mention of competing proposals or any hint of possible downsides to the president’s positions. “First sell the problem, then sell the solution,” an old sales axiom holds. Boiling hugely complex issues like health-care reform and economic stimulus down to one page of problems and one page of solutions isn’t educating—it’s marketing.
Granted, these gatherings have had some positive outcomes. Many reports describe people becoming civically involved and politically aware for the first time. Some of these people started by attending a house party and went on to volunteer at a local food bank or other charity; others have been encouraged to run for local office. This is where the White House should focus its efforts, encouraging Americans to participate in the civic and political lives of our communities. Declaring the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday a Day of Service, the Obama team encouraged everyday Americans to learn about volunteering opportunities in their communities, contributing to a dramatic upsurge in local participation.
But making policy involves confronting the hard trade-offs that are part of any legislative process. And health-care reform and the stimulus package are just the first issues to be addressed through this online-grassroots process; the administration promises future discussions on a range of topics. One can only hope that the Obama team—at least the one in the White House, if not the one at the DNC—realizes that the campaign is over. The time for governing has begun. That means making difficult choices—and giving Americans an accurate picture of how difficult those choices are.